South Africa is a geographically diverse country with eye-popping natural wonders everywhere you look. We all know the big ones: Kruger National Park, Table Mountain, the Karoo, the Drakensberg Mountains. But if  you dig deeper into your travel book you’ll find dozens of lesser known places, offering their own unique versions of dramatic South African beauty. De Hoop Nature Reserve is one of those places.

beach

De Hoop seascape.

Last weekend I spent three days at De Hoop, which is a three-hour drive southeast of Cape Town. Full disclosure: The trip was sponsored by the De Hoop Collection. (Trips like this are what blogging dreams are made of.)

What I enjoyed most about the weekend — besides the beautiful accommodation and indescribably delicious food — was the opportunity to explore a place just far enough off the beaten path to make me feel like I was completely away. De Hoop is a great place to relax and experience nature without having to totally rough it. Plus you can play with starfish.

dalfrenzo starfish

Dalfrenzo Laing, our guide for the weekend, shows me a starfish. I can’t believe it took me 38 years to realize that I love starfish. (See more starfish in my previous post.)

The weekend consisted of three main activities: walking along the coastline; walking around the vlei (“vlei” means “lake” or “marsh” in Afrikaans); and relaxing around Melkkamer House, the restored farmhouse where I stayed with four other women.

We had to cross the vlei in a motor boat to get from the main De Hoop lodging area to Melkkamer House.

water and sky

Crossing the vlei. I loved watching the waterbirds on the vlei, especially the red-knobbed coots — funny duck-looking birds who “run” along the surface of the water for 50 or 60 meters before finally taking flight. (I was too mesmerized by the coots to take photos of them.)

pelicans

I missed the coots but I did get the pelicans.

house

Melkkamer House is just a little bit pretty. Full disclosure #2: I could never afford to stay here on my own dime, although the rates are quite reasonable for what you get. If you can afford it, you should stay there. If not, De Hoop offers lovely accommodation options for regular folk.

view from house

View of the vlei from Melkkamer House.

My favorite activity (again, besides the eating) was walking along the coastline. The beach is a few kilometers from Melkkamer House; we drove there on our first morning and walked for an hour or so along the hills above the water.

beach walk

Hiking the shoreline. It was stunningly beautiful but hot. I learned a valuable lesson on this walk: Unless you are a South African with feet that are genetically programmed to walk barefoot, do not attempt to hike the De Hoop coastline without shoes. I nearly destroyed the soles of my feet with a combination of scalding-hot sand and sharp little shards of shell.

gull

A seagull enjoys the view.

After our hike, we took a dip in the impossibly clear seawater by a secluded cove. Then we had lunch, doing our best to fend off the aggressive biting ants around the picnic area (note to self: bring closed shoes next time), climbed a massive sand dune (not as massive as the dunes in Namibia, but with softer sand) and embarked on an interpretive marine walk with Dalfrenzo.

marine walk

The start of our marine walk.

I’ve taken quite a few guided walks since moving to South Africa. Such walks are made or broken by the guide who leads them. Dalfrenzo made this marine walk. I was amazed that such a young person could amass so much knowledge about this unique marine environment. I was also delighted by Dal’s enthusiasm. Who knew mussels and seaweed could be so interesting?

If you go to De Hoop and decide to book a guided hike, I highly recommend Dalfrenzo.

sea urchin

Dal shows us a sea urchin.

people under rocks

Interesting view of this fragile marine protected area.

holding starfish

Another starfish. I love them.

Interesting fun fact learned on our marine walk: African Black Oystercatchers do not catch oysters.

Note: Whale-watching season runs from June to December and De Hoop is one of the best places in South Africa to see whales. Hopefully I’ll make it back someday at the right time of year.

On our second morning we hiked around the vlei. This was a more strenuous hike than the day before and I really enjoyed the exercise, although the scenery is not as dramatic as what we saw along the coast.

ibis

Sacred ibis on the vlei. Giant dunes in the background.

eland

The eland is the largest antelope species. There are lots of them at De Hoop. This photo doesn’t convey how huge they are.

bontebok

De Hoop is also home to a rare antelope species called the bontebok. I think they are the most beautiful of all antelope but again, my photos don’t convey it. I took about 1,000 bontebok shots and they all look pretty much like this one. I need a longer lens.

quiche

Quiche by the vlei. The food on this trip was, hands down, the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten in South Africa. Our private chef, Mercia Tyobeka, is a brilliant food genius. I love her.

The last thing that I loved about my trip to De Hoop was the local troupe of baboons. I realize my affection for baboons might arouse controversy. Most people — especially South Africans — hate baboons, often for good reason as baboons can be quite aggressive toward humans. But the baboons hanging around Melkkamer were civilized and, in my opinion, adorable.

baboons

I regard the baboons. The baboons regard me. This mutual awareness is charming to me. One of them did creep up to the house in the wee hours of the morning and rattle our bedroom doorknob. I sat up in bed and saw the top of its head as it ran away. Still, no harm done.

I could say more but I’ve posted 18 photos and 1,000 words. So I’ll leave it at that. De Hoop is awesome and you should go there. The end.

baboons small

One more cute baboon shot for the road.

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